1987’s The Brave Little Toaster is a curious piece of nostalgia. Its theatrical release was practically non-existent, but it became a favorite among many children of my generation on home video. Though The Brave Little Toaster does have some heart to it, its lacking production values have become apparent with age, and some of the film’s darker content seems to greatly contrast with an otherwise kid-friendly tone.
The Brave Little Toaster tells the story of five household appliances: the titular Toaster (Deanna Oliver); Blanky (Timothy E. Day), an electric blanket with a childlike personality; Lampy (Tim Stack), a worry-wart lamp; Kirby (Thurl Ravenscroft), a cantankerous vacuum cleaner; and Radio (Jon Lovitz), who talks in a voice similar to radio broadcasters.
These appliances are at the Summer cabin, with their “master” Rob (Wayne Kaatz) not having visited in some time. The appliances fear they’ve been abandoned, except for Toaster and Blanky, who try to keep hope alive. When the appliances find out the cabin is being sold, they decide to go out on an adventure to find their master.
It’s a really simple story that certainly feels like a precursor to the Toy Story films (many of the leading members of Pixar, including John Lasseter, were among the film’s staff). Though the idea of living appliances just doesn’t have the same emotional resonance as living toys (which do you have fonder memories of; your favorite childhood toy, or your first toaster?). Speaking of toys, it seems kind of odd that the appliances remember Rob playing with them when “the master” was a young boy, as though they fill the role of toys. Why the hell was this kid playing around with toasters?
Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked. The Brave Little Toaster does have good messages about friendship, sacrifice and hope that help keep the film afloat even in its mirkier moments (such as the sporadic musical numbers, which aren’t particularly memorable).
The adventure the appliances go on is filled with many different characters, both human and inanimate object (the best of which being an old TV, who isn’t simply a television set with knobs for eyes, but actually communicates through a commercial character on the screen). Some of these characters are humorous (such as an air conditioner with the voice of Phil Hartman, doing a Jack Nicholson impression), but the adventure also goes into some darker territory.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a children’s film venturing into darker subject matter (Disney films often feature death, after all), but there’s just something about some of the events of The Brave Little Toaster that greatly clash with the film’s attempted childlike appeal. This is a movie about talking toasters and blankets going on an adventure, after all. But it’s also a film in which the appliances watch as a helpless blender is ripped apart for its batteries.
“It’s just a blender” You might be thinking. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be an issue. But within the context of the film, these appliances are living people, and the way the scene plays out is something of an homage to horror films. For a film that’s definitely aiming at a very young demographic, it’s surprisingly violent in such scenes. Even more notably, the appliances eventually find their way into a junk yard, where they hope to escape before they are crushed to death by a mechanical crusher, all while a bunch of living cars are getting crushed to death, and singing about how worthless their lives were while it’s happening.
Scenes like this really detract from the film’s charms. Again, I’m all for animated films venturing into more mature elements and subject matter, but The Brave Little Toaster goes from cute and appealing to grizzly and depressing to such a degree that it feels like two different movies.
The 2011 Pixar film Cars 2 suffered a similar problem, catering to a younger crowd, while also including a scene in which one of the cars gets tortured to death. What is it with talking cars and brutality? I have a feeling the filmmakers believe that because the characters are based on inanimate objects, that it doesn’t count. But again, there’s context to be considered. After all, we’re supposed to identify and resonate with these toaster and vacuum characters just like any others, we can’t suddenly think of them as machines when it’s convenient.
It should also be noted that The Brave Little Toaster was made on a limited budget, and it can show in the animation. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to call the animation bad, but I don’t think I would go further than calling it adequate. The animators definitely made the best with what they had, but that can’t completely excuse that there were so many other animated films during the same timespan that were far more visually appealing.
With all this said, I hope I don’t sound entirely dismissive towards The Brave Little Toaster. It does have its charms, the main characters are cute and likable, and it does have good messages for kids (the Toaster is of course the antithesis of everything the nihilistic cars sing about). But the production values show their age and limitations, and I think younger audiences might want to watch a different movie during Toaster’s darker moments.
The Brave Little Toaster is an interesting, nostalgic treat if you grew up with it, but I’d be lying if I said there weren’t plenty of better options available in the genre.